“If You Want a Future, Darlin,’ Why Don’t You Get a Past?”: Mormon Literature and the Importance of Canon-Building

In order to have Mormon literary criticism, Mormon literary critics need something to criticize. That is how the process works, and it is why constructing (and deconstructing) literary canons is one of the most important jobs that literary critics do. Canon-building, of course, is messy, controversial, and inexact, but that’s OK. These things are supposed to be fluid and controversial; indeed, the controversy itself gives us something to write about. Without a manageable body of texts to study, though, Mormon literary criticism generally descends into self-referential arguments about whether or not Mormon literature exists. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Mormon scholars of the “BYU School” (Gene England, Richard Cracroft, Ed Geary, Neal Lambert, Bruce Jorgensen, and that crowd) made some progress in creating a canon of Mormon literature. They sketched out several roughly chronological movements (i.e. “Foundations,” “Home Literature,” “The Lost Generation,” “Faithful Realism,” etc.), published the first-ever anthology of Mormon Literature, and began the process of recovering texts. This work yielded a new appreciation for novels by Maurine Whipple, Virginia Sorensen, Vardis Fisher, and a few others, but it stopped too soon. As a result, Mormon literature has more of a “greatest hits” album than a fully developed canon. And this is a problem.

Or, at least, it is a problem for those of us who want to connect Mormon literature to a larger scholarly community. We just don’t have enough connection points. Once we move through the handful of 19th century canonical authors who wrote about Mormonism (Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain) and the few “Lost Generation” writers that anybody has ever heard of, we have to go almost to the end of the 20th century to find anything to write about that will catch the attention of the larger scholarly community.

But there is still reclamation work to do. There is a lot of Mormon literature out there that nobody is writing about. In what follows, I list ten works of literature that have yet to be studied or written about by Mormon scholars, despite being precisely the kinds of texts or authors that are capable of catching the attention of other scholars. Five of them are by Mormon authors who never quite fit the typical Mormon mold, and five are by non-Mormon authors whose sympathy for, and understanding of the Saints far surpasses that of their contemporaries.

Here is the list.

Russell, John. The Mormoness; or The Trials of Mary Maverick. (1853)
The first work of American fiction to deal with the Mormons, is often grouped in with later dime novels and anti-polygamy polemics and called an “anti-Mormon” novel. It is nothing of the sort. John Russell was a frontier Austin_Parshall__Mormoness_1024x1024intellectual in Western Illinois when the Mormons were settling in Nauvoo. He was personal friends with Parley P. Pratt and Sidney Rigdon, who stayed at his house after the Mormons were expelled from Missouri.  And he was an eye witness to many of the events involving Mormons in Missouri and Illinois. The Mormoness; or The Trials of Mary Maverick is an imagined biography of Philinda Merrick, the Mormon woman whose husband and young son were killed in the Haun’s Mill Massacre. While disagreeing with Mormon theology, Russell’s portrayal of this Mormon woman is charitable, sympathetic, and respectful.

Spencer, Josephine. The Senator from Utah and Other Tales of the Wasatch. (1895)
Josephine Spencer, a prominent Mormon journalist and creative writer in the late 19th century, has been grouped uncomfortably with “Home Literature” writers like Orson F. Whitney and Nephi Anderson. Only one of the stories in her only published volume has anything to do with Mormons, though all of them are set in 19th century Utah. Most of her stories are political–and politically progressive at that. The title story features a near-future Utah politician who conspires to attempt to drown labor activists in their own union hall. Another story deals with the 1894 March to 20160716_133913Washington by the “Commonwealers,” a group of activists affiliated with Eugene V. Debs and the Railway Union. Written by an active Mormon and published by the forerunner of Deseret Books, The Senator from Utah challenges much of what we think we know about Mormonism in the 19th century.

Tourgée, Albion. Button’s Inn. (1897)
Albion Winegar Tourgée was one of the 19th century’s great anti-slavery crusaders. He rose to prominence during Reconstruction as a proud “carpetbagger,” whose adventures were recounted in his best-selling memoir,
A Fool’s Errand, by One of the Fools (1879). He was also the founder of a college for African-American women (Bennett College) and one of the plaintiff’s attorneys in the Supreme Court’s famous 1897 Plessy v. Ferguson case. In 1897, Tourgée also wrote Button’s Inn, a well-received ghost-story/mystery novel set in the Lake Eerie region of New York. Though the novel is not about Mormonism per se, the hero of the story disappears and becomes a Mormon apostle before returning to set everything aright in the end.

Dougal, Lilly. The Mormon Prophet. (1899)
Fifty years after his death, Joseph Smith had been villainized and caricatured in hundreds of novels, faux memoirs, and supposed biographies before falling into the hands of Lilly Dougal, a Canadian feminist, and bestselling author at the turn of the 20th century. Dougal’s biographical novel The Mormon Prophet was such a balanced and charitable view of Joseph Smith that B.H. Roberts praised it in the New York Times as “the first honest effort in the department of fiction to account for the Mormon prophet.” Also a brisk seller, The Mormon Prophet marked an turning point in the portrayal of the Latter-day Saints in imaginative literature.

1362744DeVoto, Bernard. The Chariot of Fire. (1926)
In 1938, Utah-born novelist and Pulitzer-Prizewinning historian Bernard DeVoto famously wrote in his Harper’s column that he would never write a novel about the Mormon people. “I will content myself with less aspiring failures,” he concluded, “leaving to more stubborn men the crash that any man must make who tries to compose fiction out of Joseph Smith and the Mormon people.” But DeVoto was kind of fibbing. His 1926 novel The Chariot of Fire narrates the rise of a frontier prophet named Ohio Boggs, who develops an impressive religious following that sets him and his followers against the people of Illinois. They retaliate by killing him and driving his followers out of the state. The clear parallels to the Mormon story—combined with the author’s background as the child of a Mormon mother and a Catholic father—make it at least reasonable to consider The Chariot of Fire one of the first serious literary novels about Mormonism.

Ertz, Susan. The Proselyte. (1933)220px-First_edition_of_The_Proselyte_by_Susan_Ertz_(book_cover)
From her first novel in 1923 until her death in 1985, the Anglo-American writer Susan Ertz was a bestselling author on both sides of the Atlantic. While living in England in the late-1920s, Ertz developed a friendship with John A. Widtsoe, who was serving as the President of the British Mission. Widtsoe helped her in her research for her eighth novel, The Proselyte, which tells the story of an educated British servant who falls in love with a Mormon missionary and emigrates to Utah. The year it was published, The Proselyte was praised over the pulpit in LDS General Conference for its portrayal of the hardships of the pioneer trek, and, in 1935, its passages about the handcart pioneers were incorporated into the youth Sunday school curriculum for 10-11 year-old children.

Neville, Lee. Poplars Across the Moon. (1936)
“Lee Neville” was a pen name of Lela Horne Richards, one of the first nationally successful writers to come from the State of Utah. Though not a Latter-day Saint herself (Richards was an Episcopalian ), she spent many years living among the Mormon people and became a keen and sympathetic observer of their culture. Between 1917 and 1929, she published more than a dozen successful books for young girls, most notably, the “Blue Bonnet” series about a rich girl from Texas who has adventures all over the country. Her only novel for adults, Poplars Across the Moon tells the story of a childless Mormon family (husband and wife) who adopt two girls, sisters, and try to raise them in the Church. The younger daughter remains faithfully Mormon, while the older one leaves the Church to become an Episcopalian. But both of them, and their very Mormon parents, are portrayed sympathetically as they try to negotiate religious difference in the midst of deep familial obligations.

Fisher, Vardis. April.  (1937)

With all of the necessary caveats and qualifications, Vardis Fisher can plausibly be considered the most important 20th century novelist to come 140from the Mormon tradition. Earlier canonization efforts have focused on Fisher’s Mormon-migration epic, Children of God, and to a lesser extent, the four novels of his autobiographical Tetralogy. Nearly absent from scholarly consideration, though, has been his 1937 novel, April, which he himself considered his best early work. April is a comic love story set in the sort-of-Mormon world of rural Idaho at the turn of the century. About half of the novel’s characters are Mormon, and it contains perhaps the funniest scene in all of Fisher’s works, when all of the Mormons in town come together to choose a new bishop. Because all of the Mormons drink, smoke, curse, or enjoy coffee, the town is forced to ask a non-Mormon atheist–who has none of the usual vices and is well known to be kind and compassionate—to accept the job.

Sykes, Hope Williams. The Joppa Door. (1937)
Colorado-based writer Hope Williams Sykes rose to national prominence with Second Hoeing (1935), which was widely praised for its portrayals of the Volga Germans who settled in the American West during the latter part of the 19th century. The Joppa Door, published two years later, tells the story of Russian-German immigrants who came to the United States by way of Palestine to join the Mormons. To write The Joppa Door, Sykes conducted extensive interviews with Provo resident Elizabeth Keil Raile, whose life and experiences form the basis of the novel.

Robertson, Frank. A Ram in the Thicket: The Story of a Roaming 51IHAdDkzAL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_Homesteader Family on the Mormon Frontier. (1950)
Frank Robertson is probably the most famous Mormon writer that most Mormons have never heard of. In the 1920s and 1930s, he produced more than 100 hardback Western novels, including several with strong Mormon themes. His 1936 novel The Rocky Road to Jericho (written as “Frank Chester Field”) was one of the first novels of the Mormon migration written by a Latter-day Saint. Later in his life, he helped found the Western Writers of America and wrote a weekly column, “The Chopping Block,” in the Provo Daily Herald. His memoir A Ram in the Thicket, which gives an account of his conversion to (and his uneasy relationship with) the Mormon Church, became the bestselling of all his books.


Like all such lists, this one is personal and idiosyncratic. Tomorrow I would probably produce a different list altogether. What unites these works is my sense that discussions of them could easily be worked into larger discussions currently going on among literary scholars. I would invite all readers to supplement this list in the comments with other works that they think merit similar attention. Then let’s discuss and argue about them. That is how canons get built

8 Thoughts on ““If You Want a Future, Darlin,’ Why Don’t You Get a Past?”: Mormon Literature and the Importance of Canon-Building

  1. Jonathan Langford on July 11, 2016 at 9:52 am said:

    A great contribution. Many of these sound like fascinating novels I would love to read, though practical considerations suggest that I am unlikely to do so anytime in the near future.

    Part of the reason, I think, why we have failed to progress very far beyond the work done by the first generation of Mormon literary scholars (the “BYU School” you mention) is that since that time, there haven’t been many (or perhaps any) institutionally affiliated literary scholars who have been in a position to gain academic credit from Mormon literary scholarship–with you, Michael, as perhaps the only current exception.

    I can’t help but think there have to be graduate students and professors out there who *could* get professional credit for publishing works on topics such as these. I would love it if AML and the broader AML-affiliated community would be a place that could foster that kind of development.

  2. .

    I had not heard of a sizable percentage of these. PP is interested in doing a Josephine Spencer collection but Chariot of Fire and April sound awesome and I didn’t know about them at all. In fact, April sounds like the right way to get me to finally give ol’ Vardis a chance.

  3. Sarah Dunster on July 13, 2016 at 8:45 am said:

    I appreciate this simply for the fact that I’m woefully under-read when it comes to MoLit. Now I have a reading list. Thank you.

  4. Colin Douglas on July 13, 2016 at 12:20 pm said:

    Jonathan, just asking: why the assumption that “Mormon criticism” will be of “Mormon literature”? Is there not much to be said about the works of the world from a Restorationist point of view? I would very much like to see something said about the Odyssey and the Iliad from that point of view. Just for starters, and there is no end.

    • Jonathan Langford on July 13, 2016 at 6:29 pm said:

      Colin, I think your question is actually addressed to Mike Austin, who was the author of the post. Yes?

      That said, I think it’s more a definitional sort of thing than an either-or. Certainly I think there’s value in approaching world literature from a Restorationist POV — so long as we allow substantial freedom for students of literature to define for themselves what a “Restorationist POV” can encompass.

  5. Michael Austin on July 13, 2016 at 11:45 pm said:


    I’m glad that you find the list useful. I was hoping that people, would. Keep in mind that this is a “deep-dive” kind of list. I intentionally passed over the (fairly small) body of works that have already been more or less declared canonical by previous generations of LDS scholars (and have, therefore, been reissued in reprint editions and are more easily available for the casual reader). This list would probably go something like this:

    Anderson, Nephi: Added Upon (1898) and Dorian (1921)
    Bailey, Paul. For This My Glory (1940) and For Time and All Eternity (1964)
    Gates, Susa Young. John Stevens’ Courtship (1909)
    Fisher, Vardis. Children of God (1939)
    Fitzgerald, John D. Papa Married a Mormon (1955)
    Hunter, Rodello. House of Many Rooms (1965)
    Petersen, Levi. The Backslider (1986)
    Scowcroft, Brent. Children of the Covenant (1945)
    Sorensen, Virginia. A Little Lower than the Angels (1942), The Morning and the Evening (1949)
    Taylor, Samuel. Heaven Knows Why (1948)
    Whipple, Maurine. The Giant Joshua (1941)

    Even this list, of course, is highly personal. Everyone who studies the subject would produce a somewhat different version of it. But these would be a good start.

  6. Michael Austin on July 14, 2016 at 12:30 am said:


    Your point is well taken, and I agree that there is plenty of room for Latter-day Saints to talk about all kinds of literature from a Mormon/Restorationist perspective. I even argued this explicitly in a very early, 1995 article on the subject.

    But when it comes to engaging the larger community of literary scholars (which is not the only or even the best thing to do, but it is the thing I am writing about here) we are talking about two very different arguments.

    The first argument is that “Mormon Literature” is a legitimate form of regional literature, like “Southern Literature,” “Great Lakes Literature,” or “Missisippi Delta Literature”–all of which are recognized things in the Academy. I was once the chair of an English Department that offered courses and sponsored symposia in Appalachian literature, which is also a thing. The Mormon Culture Region has long been recognized as a legitimate cultural region too, and the argument that it has a unique literature worthy of study and discussion is not a terribly huge stretch for an academic discipline with a long tradition of recognizing and making space for regional literatures.

    The second argument is that Mormonism is a philosophical position like Marxism, Freudianism, Deconstruction, Darwinism, and so on and that it can form the basis for a critical approach to the study of literature. This is a much more difficult case to make in an academy that has never really been open to treating religious beliefs this way. There is really no tradition in the larger discipline for “Catholic” or “Lutheran” critical methodologies, even though both religions have rich and varied critical traditions that could easily form the basis for a critical method.

    So, my strong sense is that a critical analysis of The Iliad or The Odyssey from a Restorationist perspective would be primarily of interest to Mormons and would attract very little attention outside of the subculture because the larger discipline is very poorly suited to this kind of inquiry. On the other hand, a critical history of the literature of the Mormon Culture Region would, if done well, attract substantial attention from outside scholars because this is exactly the kind of inquiry that people within the discipline are used to seeing.

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